The audience of foodies and curiosity-­seekers cheered and groaned at every twist in an epic battle of chefs at the recent inaugural production of “Minced,” promoted as Minnesota’s “finer version” of the New York-based TV show “Chopped.”

The local chefs had to work on short notice with exotic ingredients, including dragon fruit, yucca root, chayote squash and prickly pear cactus. The three judges were a cosmopolitan lot, including a local Latina leader and liaison to public schools, an acclaimed food author and James Beard Award winner, and a bow-tied entrepreneur who once worked with local-foods pioneer Alice Waters.

One might assume that this took place in Uptown or downtown Minneapolis. One would be wrong. The venue was an industrial space abandoned years ago by a boat manufacturer, just north of downtown Little Falls in the rural farm-and-lake landscape near the geographic center of Minnesota.

The show was produced by the new occupant of that space, Sprout, an avant-garde nonprofit food hub and marketplace established by “growers, eaters, creatives and economic developers.” Sprout’s mission is to “connect and strengthen the local food system as a regional asset” and to “contribute to our collective story of a vibrant and resilient Central Minnesota.”

Sprout, in turn, was nurtured by the Region Five Development Commission, which serves five counties in central Minnesota. It’s one of 10 regional development organizations (RDCs or RDOs) that have been helping to guide economic planning in Minnesota statewide for almost 50 years.

The RDOs still are very much in service to employers, present and would-be, in the local economy. They swing deals and find capital, public money or tax breaks. But Region Five and all 10 of the entities allied as the Minnesota Association of Development Organizations are also broadly concerned these days about all the pieces crucial to healthy community development, which in turn foster more sustainable and equitable business growth.

This broader vision was recently distilled in a remarkable document, “DevelopMN 2016: Comprehensive Development Strategy for Greater Minnesota.”

We believe that this document can make a positive and constructive difference and that it can be of great value to candidates and voters during this year’s election season. More than ever, the so-called urban-rural divide and in particular the future of greater Minnesota will be front-and-center, as voters assess an unusually large number of candidates for governor and other offices, to determine who casts the most credible vision for a statewide economic growth formula that appeals to Minnesotans in every region.

And as Sprout and Minced illustrate, the regional strategies that have evolved in recent years involve a more holistic, creative and community-centered approach to economic development. Another way to say it: These are not your father’s economic development agencies. (In fact, four RDOs are now led by women, including the co-author of this commentary.)

The DevelopMN framework, based on decades of local hands-on experience, pinpoints 17 goals and 58 strategies for growth. Those include: improving local and vocational employment training; building affordable housing; addressing a child-care-shortage crisis; accelerating our statewide transition to renewable and local energy; protecting water quality and natural resources (a huge asset that makes rural living attractive in the first place); building out broadband and high-speed internet access; bringing many more arts and cultural amenities to Main Street; supporting existing local businesses; and all the while emphasizing the need to welcome and be more attractive to newcomers and immigrants, whether from Minneapolis or Myanmar.

Importantly, DevelopMN does not throw shade on the Twin Cities as a competitor and says nothing, for instance, about stopping transit investment in St. Paul to pay for roads and highways in St. Peter. The new framework and the tone of DevelopMN turn out to be similar to that of Greater MSP, the large and well-funded organization launched almost a decade ago by large corporations and Twin Cities governmental leaders to promote metro growth and attract new employers.

Of course, Minnesota’s regions and economies are as beautifully different as our natural ecosystems, from the boreal forests of northeast to the fertile prairies in the south and west to the hardwood forests and scenic hills in the southeast. But there are plenty of principles, goals and strategies that we think can unite our regions.

DevelopMN identifies four common basic cornerstones: human capital, economic competitiveness, community resources and foundational assets. Here are a few examples of implementation strategies for each, among dozens that can be found in annual reports of the 10 organizations.

Renewable energy in Southwest

Nearly every community in Minnesota is looking for ways to benefit from the momentous and accelerating statewide shift to local and renewable energy. Wind and sun are particularly abundant in our southwest corner, and the Southwest RDC is out front guiding the transition. It has helped develop a unique Property Assessed Clean Energy program that allows businesses and farmers to find upfront capital by borrowing against future tax assessments. SRDC also has been a leader of an innovative, new 18-county Rural Minnesota Energy Board, and it works closely with the highly effective statewide Clean Energy Resource Teams, which are helping build a growing list of certified rural “Green Step” cities.

Affordable housing in the Headwaters

Consensus is overwhelming that an affordable-housing shortage is hindering rural economic development, and the Headwaters RDC in the north-central region is among the most creative and ambitious players filling that need. Among initiatives: partnerships with both the Bemidji and Blackduck high schools in which students learn construction trades and actually build a house every year; building affordable multiple-family housing; providing financing to restore substandard single-family units; offering down-payment assistance; and delivering a Home Stretch program that helps low-income folks on the path to homeownership.

Highways, mobility and safe routes in the Arrowhead

Rural Minnesota desperately needs a major transportation funding package to improve highways and bridges, but many regions are as focused as urban communities on transit service and mobility, also promoting the health benefits of walking and bicycling. The Arrowhead RDC in northeastern Minnesota is a leader in developing the Safe Routes to School program and promoting projects that emphasize an active-living approach, with positive impact on both health and natural-resource preservation. The RDC is also helping develop scenic byways to take advantage of the region’s traditional allure to tourists and vacationers, including a lesser-known Avenue of the Pines route from Deer River to Northome.

Equity and welcoming in South Central

Growing racial diversity in this region is offsetting white population loss and aging trends, filling labor demands and lowering the average age in some counties. Thanks to a large Latino workforce, for instance, St. James and Watonwan County now rank among the most diverse places in Minnesota. In alignment with the DevelopMN strategy to “embrace emerging populations” as assets, Region Nine in south-central Minnesota is building a framework for more inclusive and welcoming communities. In 2018, in partnership with the Greater Mankato Diversity Council and the University of Minnesota’s Center for Community Vitality, Region Nine launched a seven-month project convening 45 entities from five communities to explore best practices and, through education and relationship-building, to facilitate community action.

 

Further exploration of DevelopMN strategies will be a focus of a June 27-29 gathering in Granite Falls called “Thriving by Design: Rural and Urban Together,” to which the public has been invited; space is still available. The event is being organized by Growth & Justice and OneMN.org, a statewide business-minded coalition of leaders working toward racial equity and keeping Minnesota “open, inclusive, welcoming, innovative and creative.”

We know that candidates, news media and social media in coming months are likely to feature divisive issues, regional enmity and simplistic solutions. But we also know there is an emerging private-public-nonprofit sector consensus around attractiveness and place-making as an essential theme for a comprehensive “One Minnesota” development strategy.

We think this better attitude might best be summed up by Bob McLean, a business executive and renewable-energy entrepreneur from Cass County who was in the audience at Minced. McLean is already at work on another Sprout project, labeled “Who’s at Your Table’’ and focusing on positive aspects of the growing racial and cultural diversity of the region.

“This holistic perspective is so important,” McLean says. “Our good life in Minnesota has been made possible by people and leaders who understood the importance of everyone doing better. If we are not welcoming, and if we are not bringing everybody in our regions to opportunity, our economy and our long-term economic prosperity will suffer.”

Cheryal Lee Hills is the executive director of the Region Five Development Commission, which includes five counties in central Minnesota. Dane Smith is senior policy fellow at Growth & Justice, a research and advocacy organization that seeks a broader prosperity for Minnesota.